Making connections: the role of ‘weak ties’ in migrants’ employment strategies

New research sheds light on how Polish migrants to the UK navigate labour markets and their social and employment networks

Louise-Ryan-100What strategies can migrants mobilise to overcome initial ‘deskilling’ and achieve levels of employment commensurate with their qualifications? Discussions of post-accession migration from Central and Eastern Europe, in particular, abound with images of graduates from prestigious Polish or Hungarian universities brewing cappuccinos in British high street coffee chains. However, the extent to which this can be described as a form of ‘de-skilling’ or a temporary stepping stone to future graduate employment is open to discussion.  My recent research considers what strategies help migrants to make the transition from barista to professional occupations.

Clearly, there are practical things that migrants can do such as developing English language proficiency or undertaking further training and qualifications in the UK.  In addition, my recent research with Polish migrants suggests that the role of social networks remains significant in career development.

The participants in my study had been in Britain for approximately ten years hence there was an opportunity to reflect on how their employment trajectories had developed and changed over time.  All bar one were graduates and even though all had initially worked in low paid, casual jobs, they all had now achieved jobs commensurate with their qualifications.  For these migrants, working below qualifications had resulted from a lack of recognised work experience and limited language proficiency. In addition, many had chosen to do these flexible kinds of jobs because they did not know how long they would stay in Britain and were wary of long-term employment commitments. Most were graduates in subjects like psychology and while highly educated, they had very limited work experience (apart from student jobs) before arriving in the UK.  Thus, they were not ‘highly skilled’ professionals who became ‘deskilled’ in the British labour market.  Nonetheless, they had all faced the challenge of building up locally recognised workplace experience and good references in the UK.

Upon arrival in the UK, most participants had networks of Polish friends and acquaintances who provided information and assistance in finding accommodation and jobs.  Much has been written about migrant social networks. The benefits associated with tight, mutually supportive ‘bonding’ ties of co-ethnics have been discussed by many migration experts. However, it has also been noted that over reliance on these close bonds can truncate migrants’ network reach, limiting access to wider and more diverse social contacts.

In contrast to bonding networks, ‘bridging’ ties beyond the ‘ethnic enclave’ can enable migrants to access more diverse social capital with enhanced opportunities to ‘get ahead’ in the destination society.  However, as I have argued elsewhere the simplistic dichotomy between bonding and bridging risks overlooking the diverse and dynamic nature of migrants’ social ties. Ethnic composition is not a good indication of what resources are being exchanged through a network. Instead, as I suggest in my recent article, we need to analyse the nature of the relationships within social ties, including levels of trust and reciprocity, the relative social location of the actors, in terms of their socio-economic status, and the actual flow of realised, as opposed to simply latent, resources through these connections.

Developing on Granovetter’s concept of ‘weak ties’, I have sought to explore how migrants establish and maintain new social connections in new environments. Access to such social ties cannot be assumed. In fact, migrants, especially those who find themselves in casual, insecure, low paid jobs below their qualifications, may experience obstacles to expanding their network reach.  In my study, Polish migrants who began their working lives in Britain as domestic cleaners commented upon how isolated they had felt.  Expanding one’s network usually required concerted effort. One woman started to do voluntary work in a local charity in her spare time, while another took on an extra job at weekends in a market stall. In this way, they not only got to practice their English and broaden their skill set but also to meet new people and build up new social connections.

The role of social networks, particularly their role in providing ‘weak ties’ in employment seeking, has been much debated.  Of course, migrants do not find jobs simply through their networks. Migrants are located in specific socio-economic and structural contexts that afford varied labour market opportunities through a mix of formal and informal application processes.  Nevertheless, despite the growth of online tools in job searches, research suggests that social contacts remain important especially in particular employment sectors. Personal contacts can provide valuable information about job opportunities but also can share advice, tacit knowledge and insider insights about employment and application processes.

Most of my participants remarked upon the ways in which new social contacts had aided their employment seeking in various ways. These new acquaintances were usually work colleagues, neighbours, parents at their children’s school, members of a church group or social club.  Building new social connections required a certain level of cultural capital, particularly language proficiency, as well as opportunities to meet new people. These new social contacts also required a certain level of trust before useful resources could be exchanged.  Thus, expanding network reach not only required opportunity and effort but, as also observed by other researchers, can take considerable time. These social contacts proved to be valuable sources of locally relevant and useful information and, thus, bear many of the characteristics of ‘weak ties’. They could also act as brokers making introductions to other useful social actors.

I am not suggesting that migrants can only improve their career trajectory through weak ties. In fact, some participants in my study suggested that social contacts were less important in Britain, because of equal opportunity policies, than in the Polish context where knowing the right people remained very important.  Nonetheless, in the interview narratives and network mapping techniques that I used in my research, it was apparent that expanding network reach remained very important for migrants and could provide access to a more diverse range of information and advice.

My research was conducted before the Brexit vote. But most participants referred to the forthcoming referendum and expressed their concerns about Britain leaving the EU. Having lived here for almost a decade and having invested so much in developing their career in the UK, it is hardly surprising that many were concerned about the risks associated with returning permanently to Poland. Most perceived the Polish labour market as quite precarious. I am now in the process of re-contacting all my participants to gauge their reactions to Brexit and assess how it will impact on their future migration plans.

Watch Louise Ryan introducing her recent paper on the social networks of migrants and the role that weak ties play in accessing resources: